Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Working for the Weekend - Maine Pottery Tour!

If you are out & about this weekend in Maine, watch for this sign! It will direct you to the seventeen studios opening their doors for the Maine Pottery Tour. 

You can see all the studios involved here; or check out interactive maps for the Central, Mid-Coast, and Southern legs of the tour at the links.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Back to the Clay

I've spent the last week on the business end of things - messing with my pricing equation, trying to find new outlets, generally pulling my hair out about the aforementioned.

It's time to get back to clay. And the garden: the things that give me peace.

Sometimes it's hard to get myself into the studio after a stressful patch of unconsummated selling efforts, because I get this why-bother feeling: like, if I don't have anywhere to sell them, making them feels futile. But only until I actually start doing it, and then I remember: Oh, yeah. I don't make them to sell them; I sell them so I can continue to make them.

Also, I do have places to sell them! Right now I am getting the yard and studio ready for the Maine Pottery Tour, which is next weekend! In fact today and part of tomorrow will be my only chances to be in the studio this week; Monday and Tuesday are teaching days, and the rest of the week will be sorting, cleaning, pricing, and all the little errands involved in a big sale. Got change? Bags? Packing material? Better print out some more maps, Business cards, too, and what's the credit-card accepting plan, Squared-up or Paypal? and the garden is so far behind this year (cold winter, late spring!), maybe I should get some annuals to punch up color.
And so on. But that's all later; right now I'm off to make some berry bowls.

Thursday Inspiration: Debbie Wald

See lots more of Debbie's work here.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Pushing Through

I can't say I'm fully recovered from my pukey meltdown of yesterday, but I was able to pull myself together enough to make some phone calls. In some cases, no one answered the phone at all. Ever. I called several different times, at different times of the day...no dice. Also, their extensions don't work. In others, I got a receptionist who directed me into voicemail. In only one case - a Maine store - did I actually reach someone and make an appointment. I will probably get that account.

This is what frustrates me: when I actually get the appointment - when they see and hold the pots - I get the account every single time. I'm not exaggerating: I don't think I've ever gotten in to see the buyer or gallery/store director and gotten a "no." This is how I know I'm not deluding myself. The work is not lacking. That isn't the problem. The problem is that I can't get them to answer the damn phone. Or email. And just showing up is obviously rude, all agree. I would never do that. So what's a poor potter to do?

I know what I used to do: I used to go the the American Craft Council wholesale show in Baltimore. But that's thousands of dollars, just for the booth fee, and never mind gas, hotel, and meals. Oh, and I'd probably have to rent a truck. And building the booth can run into some serious money also. To do all that I'd have to put thousands on my credit card, which I am extremely reluctant to do.

So, back to what I can do, and you know what? It's a learning process, like everything else about this business. Back when I collapsed everything I made on the wheel, I didn't quit, I pushed through it. I pushed through the lumpy and unlovely early efforts, the glaze failures, the firings that didn't reach temperature, and I will push through this, too.

How about you? How do you approach stores?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Attached Please Find...

Quick, what's the worst part of being a potter? Worse than mixing glazes, worse than grinding kiln shelves? Approaching stores and galleries about selling my work, that's what! It wrecks my head for days. And today is one of THOSE days: the day I have to make the follow up calls. My stomach hurts and I can scarcely breathe, just thinking about it. It never gets easier.

I can send emails all day long; it's the follow-up calls that kill me. Artists famously have poor social skills - I myself am painfully shy - but to be successful we have to also have the mad skilz as salespeople. (Do people say "mad skilz" anymore? Oh.)I've set myself a modest goal of three follow-up calls a day. I am approaching larger, out-of-state venues, in order to get the prices I need, but naturally these are harder to get into. I keep telling myself that some nos are to be expected, but maybe that's the wrong approach! Maybe I should be psyching myself up that OF COURSE they will want me.

Gah. Back when I used to apply for jobs, I never felt like this, no matter how much I needed the job. Wish I could get my head back into that breezy space, but really I can't. The more important thing is just MAKE THE CALLS.

And if you see me today, and I'm not quite myself, be kind.

UPDATE: Pathetic, but I seriously don't think I can do this. I've thrown up twice this morning, thinking about it, and my hands are shaking typing this. I know it shouldn't be this hard, but it just fucking is. So: where does that leave me? 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pots By the Pound, Part II: Valuable Input

I've had some feedback about the Pots By the Pound equation, and it illustrates the value of listening to people who  know what they are talking about! (Listening is a skill I had to cultivate. I used to get defensive about my ideas and push back on perceived criticism; it's hard to learn anything, that way.) Some input I will put in place, because it is a genuine omission which would ultimately have caused the approach to fail. Others were just things that I needed to think about: if they needed to be in there, and if not, why not?

To review, the pricing equation looks like this:

2 x BM(Bare minimum of household expense) + UFE (15% of BM, for unforeseen expenses) + S (20% of BM for savings) + BE (Business Expenses) divided by PC (pounds of clay I purchase annually) = wholesale price per pound for pots. 

Firstly, someone pointed out that I have not accounted for failed pots. My numbers assume that 100% of the clay that I buy will result in a finished, salable piece. That is so not true! I lose at least 10% of my ware, though most of those become seconds rather than shards, due to normal parts of the clay process, like cracking and warping, accidental chipping of greenware or bisqueware, and glaze flaws; and a few more which are specific to vapor glazing: big crusty blobs of soda in the middle of a plate, for example, or a pot that received so little soda glass that the surface is dry and unappealing. There are also some pots that fail because I try something new and it doesn't go well.  I don't know if 10% is high or low, but I know all potters have some percentage of kiln-god sacrifice. So the PC part of the equation will now be amended to PC = pounds of clay purchased annually minus 10%. This pays for the inevitable expense of making pots that then fail.

Another important point mentioned was that I should build into the equation expenses that are not unforeseen but not annual, either. Someday I will have to replace my kiln. Someday I will have to rebuild the kiln, whole or in part. That will have to be part of BE; I am thinking ten percent every year of the initial cost of those items, and any other big purchases I can think of that come around rarely but predictably.

A point that required more reflection: a friend pointed out, correctly, that this model contains no profit for Fine Mess Pottery itself. There's compensation for me, and (now) money that will be saved for future predictable expenses, but Fine Mess (in theory if not in practice) will have zero dollars on the books at the end of each year. It will generate enough to keep me happy and afloat, but no extra to expand. No future larger facilities, no apprentices, no second kiln. Apparently businesses are supposed to do this, plan money to grow.

Seems obvious, so why did I leave it out? I realized: I don't want to grow. I'll need to expand my market to reach the numbers this equation generates (will eventually generate, when I stop talking about it and put some actual numbers instead of letters into it) and presumably my expenses will go up a little each year, and I may discover some needs I didn't know I had, but I don't want or need my business to grow beyond how many pots I can comfortably make, with enough time to make them well. In a sense, if you think of my compensation as a salary, an expense which Fine Mess Pottery incurs (if we can for a moment separate the potter from the Pottery), Fine Mess is sort of...non-profit. Not in the legal sense, of course, but I have no interest in building an empire, however small.I have no shareholders to satisfy.  I just want to make good pots and have a life free of oil-bill and car repair panic attacks. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Pots By the Pound

One of the things I spend a lot of time thinking about is business practices for artists. To my mind these are necessarily different from other sorts of businesses; every seminar and lecture on the topic I've attended - admittedly not that many - has started with the Make What People Want to Buy approach. That ain't gonna work for me, but I still look to conventional models for other aspects of my business. Pricing, for example, and the related and very important Getting Paid part of working.

I've mentioned before in this space my friend, Mr Business Guy. With regard to pricing and salary, Mr. Business Guy recommends a backing-in approach: decide how much money you want to make, figure out how much pottery you can make, and price accordingly. While I was trying to think of a way to translate that into a practical approach, another friend mentioned wanting to work out by-the-pound pricing, to solve the pricing problem once and for all. Two great thoughts that taste great together! (Metaphor fail. WHATEVER, don't judge.)

So an equation to figure out part A - how much money do I want? might look like this:

Total of all household expenses per year: utilities, mortgage, groceries, insurance, taxes, all those. Let's call that BM, for Bare Minimum.

We are going to add 15% of BM, for unforeseen expenses (UFE). This is largely arbitrary, because unforeseen expenses are, well...unforeseen. But I had to put something in for them, and if I think back on past UFE, I think 15% is reasonable.

Now for savings(S). This is hard for me, because I have a history of lowballing this number; my current savings, for example, are in the high single digits. Most of the reading I have done says between 10 and 20%, but of course there are multiple factors influencing the number, such as how old one is, and the absolute number we are taking a percent of. I'm going on the high end, because I'll be 50 this year, and because I suspect my income will always be on the low end, even if it's plenty for me.

So now we have:

UFE = BM x 0.15
S = BM x 0.20

BM, coincidentally, can also stand for Bowel Movement; and life at the bare minimum can be pretty shitty. I need, and you probably need, to add something on top of this to have a little fun, buy a new shirt, contribute to causes you care about, maybe get the name-brand ketchup once in a while. Here's the sticky part: how much disposable income do you want? In some ways that's an easy question: as much as you can get, right? But remember every upward tick of the final number makes the people who will both want and be able to buy your work harder to find, so there's a trade-off. My BM number is relatively low, by design: no kids, a relatively small mortgage, no car note, no cable package or cell phone plan. I'm going to do my initial calculation by doubling BM, to account for disposable income. I feel nervous just saying that, but what the hell, it's an exercise. Let's find out what it would take to get there.  So now we've got:

2BM + UFE + S

That's how much my salary would be. That, of course, doesn't account for how much it costs me to make the pots; fortunately I have this number readily available, as my schedule-C deductions. Let's call Business Expense "BE."

(2BM + UFE + S) + BE = the total amount of gross income I would need to bring in from all sources to make this equation work.

Now that I have a number, I need a way to connect what I actually make to that number. That's where pots by the pound comes in. I know how much clay I buy each year. Well, actually, I don't. But Karen at Portland Pottery can probably look into my account history there and tell me. If I divide the number of dollars I need to make by the number of pounds of clay, I then can take that number, and arrive at a price point for any given piece: if it takes six pounds to make a bowl, and the per-pound number is $10 (just pulling that one out of my butt - haven't done the math yet), then the bowl is $60. That's would have to be the wholesale price.

But now it's time to pack up and head for Portland to teach my class. No time for math! Will follow this up later, gator.

UPDATE: I've added some features to the equation, after talking with people who know more about these things than I do. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Thursday Inspiration: Jeff Oestreich

In some ways it feels like cheating to feature Jeff Oestreich; surely this is a potter who is already an inspiration to you! On the other hand, who doesn't want an excuse to look at some Jeff Oestreich pots? See lots more here.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Everything Happens for a Reason But Sometimes it's a Stupid Reason

In ceramics, everything happens for a reason.

Like, the interior of this otherwise-very-nice sugar bowl is dry and rough, and the reason for this is, some dumbass (ahem) forgot to glaze the inside.

And sometimes, in clay, you never figure out the reason, and that's okay, because you can solve things without knowing it. For example: I have a yellow glaze, Old Yellow, that's always been a little funny about what bisqueware it likes. If the bisque was a little too cool, it wouldn't adhere well, so I would get crawling, and sometimes sheets of glaze falling off. Uncool! But a simple fix: bisque higher. I used to bisque to ^010; I upped it to ^08. Problem solved, for years. Now this firing, I am starting to see evidence of that old crawling problem again.

But why? Same glaze, same clay bodies, a good solid 08 bisque...all the variables the same ones that have been working for years. There has to be a reason; everything happens for a reason. I just don't know the reason.

I see two possible solutions here: water the glaze down a bit, or fire the bisque a little higher. I'll probably try option 1 first, cheapskate that I am.

Lucky for me the crawling was slight, not really enough to create flaws. 

Otherwise a very good firing! These pots are bound for Monkitree, and also for my yard. Maine Pottery Tour is coming up.
PS: Also in the category of "Everything happens for a stupid reason" I submit my latest soap batch!

Goat's Milk, Oatmeal and Honey...looks like a loaf of poo, smells like ammonia. Ugh! It was worse when I first unmolded it, covered in a thick layer of oily brown yuck.Apparently honey is very prone to make soap overheat and separate. It can be rebatched but won't have the nice gold-brown color one hopes for with goat' milk soap (the round cakes are okay, though.). I plan to try again, but sadly the new batch probably will not be ready in time for the Pottery Tour.